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Teams Ready for First Formula E Battery-Car Race

Image:Formula E race car

Performers dressed as race car drivers perform at an unveiling Aug. 31 of an all-electric race car ahead of the Sept. 13 inaugural Formula E auto race in Beijing, China. Organizers of the FIA Formula E Championship, the first series exclusively for electric cars, are giving racing aficionados their first chance to see a fully electric car in action. Ng Han Guan / AP

Consider it Formula One without the deafening engines screaming around the track.

In Beijing next weekend, battery-powered vehicles will debut in the new Formula E racing series. While they won’t quite hit the same top speeds as the F1 circuit, the Formula E race cars will be reasonably quick, and expected to reach as much as 140 mph — though they’ll do it in near silence.

For its first season, Formula E will see 10 teams field vehicles, each with two drivers. Several, including Virgin Racing’s Jaime Alguersuari and Mahindra Racing’s Karun Chandhok, previously ran the Formula One circuit.

Drivers — and fans — will have to get used to some differences between traditional motor sports and battery-car racing. The events will be shorter, a reality mandated by current battery technology. In Beijing, race day Sept. 13 will start out with two morning practice sessions, then a qualifying session. The race itself will last only about an hour.

The speed of those vehicles may take some observers by surprise. While traditional internal-combustion engines need to rev up to reach maximum power, electric motors generate maximum tire-spinning torque the moment they start turning. But they do so in near silence, something that even a few drivers have admitted can be unnerving.

The initial audience is likely to be heavily dependent upon techies and the environmentally minded, the sorts who don’t normally tune in ESPN for an F1 event. If there’s enough excitement to build a broader following, backers of the series have suggested, it could convince more potential buyers to consider plug-based vehicles. Sales have gained some momentum in recent years but still make up barely 1 percent of global new vehicle demand.

That helps explain the decision to inaugurate the new series in Beijing, which also has a classic Formula One race each year. The city is struggling to find ways to deal with its endemic air pollution problems and has been pushing buyers to switch to alternative propulsion. Battery cars, for one thing, are exempt from the monthly restrictions on registering new vehicles in the capital city.

“Putting on a major sporting event in the heart of cities around the world is a massive undertaking and requires careful preparation,” said Alejandro Agag, the CEO of the new race program. “We want the Formula E Beijing ePrix to be a fantastic spectacle, which is why we’re leaving nothing to chance by rigorously testing all the systems beforehand.”

Image: Alejandro Agag
Alejandro Agag, CEO of Formula E Holdings, attends an unveiling of an all-electric race car ahead of the Sept. 13 inaugural auto race in Beijing, China. Ng Han Guan / AP

Several weeks back, organizers and team members gathered in Leicestershire, England, for two full-scale simulations of the Beijing race — everything from handling accreditation procedures and TV coverage to running qualifying sessions.

“Overall we’re very pleased with how things went,” said Agag.

Whether things run as smoothly in Beijing remains to be seen — as does fan reaction to the first Formula E race.

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